At times, when there is nothing else going on, Time Team will find itself on my TV. Watching a bunch of archaeologists dig holes in fields and get excited over what looks like a lump of rock is not really what I would call enthralling. Thankfully, there is yet to be a game based around this TV show. Yet games featuring archaeologists are quite common, with the latest being The Ball, developed by Teotl Studios and published retail by Iceberg Interactive. And it is so much more interesting than a field in Surrey.
Working on the side of a dormant volcano in Mexico, the hero of The Ball finds himself getting trapped in a big hole. As is always the case, rescue will take a while as the rest of the team will need to wait for new equipment. Whilst waiting, it seems like a good idea to do a bit of exploration. It is amazing how many bad things happen as a result of what seems like a good idea. Within this cavern there are many lumps of rock to keep our archaeologist happy, but fortunately there are the much more interesting ruins of a lost civilization. Bonus!
In what will likely be the discovery of the century, providing the hero survives this ordeal and escapes, the first thing that is found is a strange gun like contraption. Being part hammer and part magnet, the player gets to use this device, and only this device, for the duration of the game. Luckily it comes with a handy giant metallic ball accessory. Using the device, the player can launch the ball in any direction using the hammer, and then bring the ball back using the magnet, each of which are assigned to different mouse keys. So now we know where the name of the game came from.
Following what is, thankfully, a gradual learning curve, the player will be presented with puzzles that must be solved using the giant ball as they progress deeper into the ruins, looking both for a way out and to discover more of this ancient civilization. The puzzles begin fairly simply and give the player a chance to get used to controlling their new found tool. Being huge and metallic, the ball can go places that the player cannot, such as over spike traps or lava, and the earlier puzzles will mostly revolve around using switches to raise platforms or open doors by rolling the ball into them, or double switches that must be stood upon by both the player and the ball.
As the learning curve increases and the player delves deeper into the ruins, more uses for the ball will become apparent and more complex puzzles will reveal themselves, requiring more innovative solving. The ball can tether itself to certain rocks and pull them out of the way, for example. Or it can be rolled through oil, leaving a handy trail to set light to by also rolling across a torch. It can even be used at its most basic as a handy midway platform for reaching high up ledges. There are even a number of power ups, of sorts, that can grant your ball with whole new abilities, such as spikes or its very own gravitational field. As the puzzles progress in difficulty, the player will find themselves having to be more and more inventive with their solutions.
As if solving all of these puzzles and avoiding all of these natural hazards is not enough, it turns out that our archaeologist friend is not alone in the ruins. The place is teeming with very annoyed mummies and a mysterious, rather irritated looking alien thing. With no means of directly attacking the mummies and other beasties that the player will come across, their survival will rely entirely on the ball and occasionally the hammer function of the tool. The hammer function itself does no damage, but using it to push enemies over a ledge is strangely satisfying. But no where near as satisfying as hearing them crunch when you roll the ball over them, which is the primary way to deal with hostile intentions. Whilst quite a lot of fun, especially when thinking out of the box and using some of the balls other functions on the enemy, the combat is perhaps the weakest factor in this game. The AI is not the brightest in the world and most enemies will happily just run towards you, begging to be squished. Occasionally when they do get some self preservation and avoid your giant rolling ball, then it becomes more apparent how difficult the ball is to actually control with any precision at speed. Still, what would ancient ruins be without some form of undead menace.
Once the game is finished, or before if you fancy mixing thing up, there are some nice little survival challenges to play with. Here, the player is challenged to last as long as possible against wave after wave of enemies. Being that these challenges are focused solely on combat, ball control issues will raise their ugly head again. But the challenges are still a nice added extra and are by no means easy.
Considering that the main game will run for around eight hours, and there is probably a few hours of fun to be had in the challenges, The Ball is not a bad package, especially for a game that began it’s life as an Unreal Mod. The visuals of the game are extremely impressive, with the ancient ruins providing an atmospheric backdrop to the well thought out and detailed puzzles and traps that are found within. Whilst the games adversaries could have done with a bit more variety, they are perfectly suited to the games ancient feel.
The Ball is playable over Steam and the boxed retail version that we used for this review is already available in most video game retailers. Priced at around Â£20, the boxed version comes with bonus material including an autographed developer postcard and the soundtrack on CD.
A lot of comparison has been made between this game and Valve’s Portal. Indeed, there are a lot of similarities. But don’t go getting this game expecting an experience as deep or memorable as Portal. The game is certainly fun, and quite the bargain for the asking price. It is atmospheric and will leave the player with a fondness for large metallic balls. But the gameplay, especially the combat, is not quite as smooth as I would have liked.
However, if you are in the market for a single player experience that is a little different from the run of the mill fare that is currently available, The Ball is certainly worth checking out. If nothing else, it makes you realise how versatile balls are.